At the core of determining and aligning on the scope of a project are proposals. While proposals can be commonly perceived as a document whose primary purpose is to set pricing terms, the most effective proposals ensure that we are in total agreement with our client. This means our proposals should set expectations regarding the work we will be engaged in, the questions we are seeking to answer, and the challenges that we have been brought on to develop a solution for. As consultants, we may find ourselves in muddy water with our clients if we never establish alignment on what we are doing for them and why. Today, we will discuss key elements of the proposal writing process that ensure we develop alignment and client buy-in at the outset of a project.
Gain Conceptual Agreement
Proposals often are categorized as a “first step” in the client engagement process. However, the best consultants understand there are many steps that should occur prior to crafting a proposal. Consultant Alan Weiss, author of Million Dollar Consulting, helps us understand that proposals should be “summations and not explorations.” That is to say, the proposal should be a document that summarizes preliminary client conversations, highlighting specific discussions and agreements regarding the initial scope of the project. It should not be a document through which we pitch various ideas and concepts that have yet to be discussed. As such, proposal content should never surprise the client. To ensure there are no surprises, we should first look to gain conceptual agreement with client executives. This is often achieved through the natural discussions that occur in advance of the proposal writing process and are confirmed with an affirmative handshake after verbalizing and agreeing to a deal between parties. At this point, the agreement can be formalized via a written proposal. The most effective proposals are those that are built on agreement and trust, both of which are based on the relationship that is established through preliminary conversations. It should also be noted that the proposal should reflect a clear understanding of client needs, which is another effort that should precede the actual writing of a proposal.
Consultants always need to clearly convey their understanding of the client’s needs, especially when crafting proposals. If we don’t understand their needs, how can they be confident that we can properly solve them? Similar to gaining conceptual agreement, establishing a clear understanding of client needs must be conducted in advance of writing the proposal. Again, this understanding should be developed in preliminary client conversations so that the proposal may serve as tool to formally validate client needs. Each proposal should clearly state our approach and understanding of the client’s situation so that nothing gets lost in translation. As we discuss our approach with the client, it’s important to include details regarding common aspects of any engagement. To do this, we can display our approach by first considering some of following questions:
- What are we trying to achieve?
- How are we going to achieve it?
- How long should it take for achievement to occur?
- Who is accountable for achievement?
- How should we measure achievement?
After we’ve fully discussed our approach and collected feedback from the client, we can effectively convey our understanding of client needs and develop the proposal. It is at this point that we can begin to clearly lay out expectations regarding project pricing, which is obviously included in the written document. Pricing is certainly very important, but it must be informed and rationalized by all other elements of the agreement. We shouldn’t neglect the alignment of client needs with our approach to prematurely develop a project price tag.
In the end, a proposal is not a menu of services and prices. It should be used as a tool to convey our understanding of client needs and how we’ll seek to address them. So long as we seek to gain conceptual agreement and can clearly set expectations regarding our approach and engagement, we’ll be that much closer to crafting an effective and agreeable proposal that is not solely dependent on cost.
Written by: Dean McMann
About the Author: Dean McMann is a Founding Partner at McMann & Ransford with 35+ years of experience in consulting and professional services. He is a sought-after expert and speaker on topics of: B2B differentiation, professional services best practices, and overcoming commoditization. In addition to his extensive experience in the Professional Services space, Dean also serves on the board of various non-profit organizations.